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Revitalize or Die

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At the northern terminus of Sky Line Drive in the Shenandoah Valley sits the town of Front Royal, Virginia; a town of around 15,000 situated in one of most spectacular natural settings one can imagine. I visited Front Royal last week to facilitate a Civic Pride Workshop. The Director of the Chamber of Commerce, Niki Foster, reached out and said she felt her community was dealing with a number of the issues I discuss in my writing. She explained she was worried that apathy was taking hold of her town and was hoping to try and stir up some emotions. I feel like this is my calling in life and I was excited for the chance to help.

It was a stunning drive down from Pittsburgh, through Maryland, West Virginia and Virginia. Moody skies, winding roads and hundred year old farms guided the way. After checking in to my hotel, Niki gave me the tour around town. Taco Bell, CVS, Rural King, Dunkin’- the depressing suburban staples of commerce had not passed over Front Royal. The tour continued out to the new hospital, we passed by the subdivisions and headed back towards what seemed like the center of town, but we arrived at more sprawl. Growing a little concerned, I asked my host if there was, in fact, a downtown. I mean I was pretty sure I had seen photos of it before visiting, but I couldn’t figure it where I was in context to our tour. Niki laughed off my question and explained that we would be visiting downtown shortly, for dinner. Downtown was charming, a narrow Main Street with four of five blocks of two and three story mixed-use buildings filled with cute shops and restaurants. We dined at a fantastic downtown brewery and were joined by a some of the cities most ardent supporters.

On my way out for a run the next morning, I ended up on the front porch of my bed and breakfast, looking for some stairs. The scene was both stunning and depressing. The town is nestled in a valley and the sun was just beginning to peek over the ridge line of the range to the east. The scene would have been breathtaking if not for the enormous Super 8 and McDonald’s signs blocking the view.

I can imagine that not long ago, this old bed and breakfast would have enjoyed uninterrupted views across this picturesque valley with the Blue Ridge Mountains providing a dramatic setting for every morning’s day break. While still beautiful, certainly not the same. The development that has proliferated over the last 50 years is a scar on the landscape and in complete conflict to its surroundings.

There is no context to these buildings, no consideration as to how to blend in or interact with something so special. How could such a gorgeous scene ever been allowed to be so mistreated? How could so many paradises been paved and so many parking lots put up?

I continued my run with this stark contrast on my mind, knowing that development does not have to be at odds with its surroundings. For thousands of years, it wasn’t- and I decided to make this point in my talk later that morning. I took a photo of a downtown restaurant and a suburban one. I took a photo of some downtown shops and some suburban ones. I took a photo of a suburban plaza and a downtown plaza and I took a photo of a busy suburban street and Main Street.

Everyone always asks my impressions when I come to their town, so I made the decision to start my talk there. I explained that Front Royal had a lovely and quaint downtown and historic residential district that they appeared to be hiding from outsiders by placing trash all around it. This got me some questionable looks. I explained that the best part of town was nearly hidden to passersby. All the good stuff has been encircled by all the bad stuff and now it’s hard to find the good stuff. Nods of agreement, albeit some rather reluctant.

It’s hard to hear criticism of your town. I get it. Who really wants some outsider coming in to tell you what they really think? But that’s the job. I don’t believe we afford ourselves a chance to improve if we aren’t first honest about our problems. Sometimes things are great, sometimes we make mistakes. It’s okay, but we have to be able to admit them to address them. While I might be more popular if I were to tell towns how great they are, I feel like this would be a disservice to them and their efforts.

Front Royal had repeated the same mistakes of every American town and developed in a manner that facilities a loss of beauty, community, local wealth and local pride. It’s my job to help cities stem the tide of apathy by fostering civic pride. One of the ways this happens is through beauty and aesthetics, another is through local ownership. So with this in mind, I showed the crowd the photos I had taken that morning.

Behind me, on a theater screen, a photo came up of a locally owned restaurant in the downtown, then I put up one of a chain restaurant. I asked the crowd which one they preferred. No big surprise. Same with the set of shops- local stores vs chains. Again with a hotel, and a plaza and the same with Main Street and a sprawl street. In each case, the crowd nearly unanimously stated they preferred the locally owned older downtown version. I explained that they are providing the same service, but in a vastly different manner.

So I asked the crowd, if everyone prefers the locally owned, smaller, cuter, older version, then why do they only build the newer chain version that no one prefers? Why did Front Royal, or any town for that matter, stop building what everyone prefers and insist on building what no one likes?

This is the question all of us should be asking of our towns. How did we get into a situation where only the ‘stuff no one likes’ gets built? Why would a town decide to scar the immaculate landscape for a restaurant no one claims to like? Why do we only build the type of housing that people don’t seem to prefer? What the hell happened? Why are we building this trash?

We bought into a narrative and much to our detriment. We’ve been sold the idea that all development is good. That all investment is healthy and that to be relevant, a town has to take part in the sprawl Ponzi scheme. We squandered something beautiful under the guise that sprawl would bring us more jobs, more money and more convenience, but it has done none of those things.

Sprawl robs communities of their money, it replaces good jobs with bad jobs, the authentic businesses with cookie cutter chains, it pulls people apart and destroys natural beauty. It makes no attempt to blend in with the surroundings, it shows no concern for local taste or history, it does not give- it only takes. It adds nothing of value and takes everything of value.

The situation Front Royal finds itself in, is the same in every town across the country. We attempted something different with the built environment and simply put- it failed. It has been an abject disaster and we must accept that sprawl development will never make our communities better, it can only do them harm.

Going back to question I asked of the audience, why have they stopped building what people prefer? Someone answered “Demand.”, but the audience was nearly 100% in favor of type of development that is no longer built, so that doesn’t add up. Someone else said “Cost.”, and yes, sprawl is cheaper for those who build it, but exceedingly expensive for the community. Another person added money into the mix, but sprawl takes money out of the community. There was a lot of head scratching, really. What have we done?!

And this is where we find ourselves. Continuing to build in a manner that makes our places worse. We tried sprawl and it didn’t work and now we have to be able to say no to it. We have to raise the standards that sprawl depressed. We have to begin the process of pulling out the codes that only allow for more sprawl. We have to turn our backs on the people that continue to push this agenda and attempt to sell us something that is patently bad for us.

Front Royal is beautiful, it is special and it is a place that is worth fiercely defending. I am grateful for the community for inviting me and for spending a day with me to discuss these topics that I believe are vital to the future. What I would like to leave the residents of Front Royal with is this; it is your decision. The shape of your community is up to you. No one from outside can tell you what your community should look like and how it should behave. No developer or national chain should have the ability to destroy something you hold dear. No one gets to dictate how your community is built except the people of your community. Because the sad truth of the matter is this- with each parking lot, fast food joint and big box store, a place gets a little worse, the landscape a little less inspiring and a community becomes a little harder to love. With each new bit of sprawl, it becomes harder for residents to remember what once mattered about their town and harder to locate that sense of civic pride. As appearances decline and attachments dwindle, there is only one thing capable of filing the void, and that is apathy. And we must be vigilant in our efforts to stem the tide of apathy.

Jeff Siegler
Revitalize or Die

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Commentary: Let’s keep the Shenandoah clean

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Paddling on the South Fork of the Shenandoah River in the George Washington National Forest. (Virginia.org)

For years, herds of cattle wading and defecating in our rivers caused pollution and rendered the waters disgusting and, in some cases, dangerous for contact by those seeking recreation and drinking water. That’s why in 2020, Virginia passed legislation providing farmers with increased funding to fence herds of cattle out of streams and a deadline of 2025 by which to complete the process. Most farmers took advantage of funding and put in exclusionary fencing, which protects public health, the health of the river, the hospitality industry, and even the cattle themselves from getting mastitis from standing in a contaminated stream.

Now, as reported in these pages, a small group of those who failed to act responsibly to put in fences using those cost-share dollars want to delay the benefits of clean water for the rest of us by extending the deadline to 2030.

This sensible legislation, passed with bipartisan support, was necessary because having cattle in our rivers and perennial streams is a trifecta of bad things. First, cattle hooves destroy the streambank and cause erosion; the resulting mud makes life difficult for critters living on the river bottom. Second, the direct deposit of cattle fecal matter in rivers adds to elevated bacteria levels. Third, the nitrogen and phosphorus from cattle manure contributes to the significant rise in algal mats we have been experiencing throughout the Shenandoah River system – dangerous enough that in 2021, more than 50 miles of the North Fork were closed to human contact because of floating mats of the stuff.

 

Algae in the North Fork of the Shenandoah in August 2021. (Matt Kowalski/Chesapeake Bay Foundation)

Those supporting an extension plead that the COVID-19 pandemic created the need for delay. However, on the Shenandoah River’s Main Stem and North and South Forks, farmers have succeeded in reducing the number of cattle herds with access to the waterways from almost 80 down to single digits; this was accomplished over a period that included the pandemic.

And the pandemic is an easy excuse – but how about evidence that it really is the basis for a needed delay? Why doesn’t the soil and water conservation district make at least a preliminary investigation to determine whether the delay is warranted? If the facts show that there has been progress but supply chain issues impeded, fair enough. But if an investigation shows nothing but inaction, we should not reward laziness with an additional delay.

Any extension is unwise and unwarranted and should not be supported. We already know that the longer cattle stay in the river, the longer the persistent problem of algae growth will go unanswered. What’s the cost of that? In addition to making the Shenandoah, one of the nation’s most attractive waterways, undesirable to be near, there is the economic impact.  River users who support the region’s considerable river outfitter economy will stay home – and who then is paying the price? The river outfitters and fishing guides. An even more dramatic and pervasive impact will result from a downturn in tourism, as those who want a day in the Valley will stay at home rather than facing the sight of disgusting mats of algae in the waters where they had wanted to wade, swim and paddle.

We also should not ignore the real health problem associated with algae in the river. In 2021, when Virginia’s Department of Health closed 50 miles of river on account of it, there were also scores of reports filed with the same authority regarding potentially dangerous algae elsewhere. Small children and pets are particularly susceptible to harm because of their enthusiasm and lack of caution; is this a worthwhile risk?

Further, the money has been allocated to support farmers to create fencing. What possibly can be gained by waiting five years when those same dollars will buy much less as a result of inflation?

To his credit, Gov. Youngkin’s current budget contains far more in agricultural cost-share dollars than any previous Virginia budget, including $81 million for Chesapeake Bay watershed cost-share best management practices, $15 million for soil and water conservation districts to provide technical assistance to farmers and $11 million to bolster operations and maintenance needs.

The Governor is also on record that Virginia will not meet the Chesapeake Bay 2025 cleanup goals, which the cattle exclusion would go some way to achieve. Pushing back the cattle herd deadline by five years will only worsen the problem. The commonwealth has no reason to sit on its hands for five years, especially when a cleaner Shenandoah River is within our sight and we have exercised the will to make it happen.

By Mark Frondorf

Mark Frondorf joined Potomac Riverkeeper Network in 2015 as the official Shenandoah Riverkeeper. Having guided on the Shenandoah and Potomac for almost twenty years, Mark Frondorf comes to the Shenandoah Riverkeeper position used to hard work and recognizing the importance of a hands-on approach to protecting our rivers. 


Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Closing the Fitness Center is a poor decision – we deserve better

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Valley Health is taking away another community outreach and wellness program in order to increase the Corporation’s profit. In a letter dated Jan.16th, 2023, Valley Health’s Director of Fitness Services, Jeffery Jehren, abruptly announced that Valley Health would permanently end Front Royal’s popular fitness program, incidentally firing several trained and skilled healthcare professionals in the process.

Where are our elderly, or those of us with Parkinson’s Disease, Muscular Dystrophy, Multiple Sclerosis, and other like diseases and/or injuries, going to go to work against our declining health issues without the valuable health care benefits provided by our Fitness Center? I am 69 years old. Other local fitness centers cannot provide the same services that we are losing because of this ill-timed callous decision.

We urge you to let Valley Health know that closing the Fitness Center is a poor decision and that we deserve better treatment from our healthcare providers as a community.

Doug & Lyn Bement
Warren County

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Commentary: Credit company’s laxness jacked up my info; I got a lousy 5 bucks

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Equifax’s financial mea culpa arrived in my mailbox the other day. I eagerly tore open the envelope the credit reporting firm sent me.

Would the check be a cool $125, as the feds originally touted in helping reach the class-action settlement? Or, given the humongous number of claimants, something much, much less?

The company’s inattention to detail led to a massive data hack in 2017. The intrusion compromised the personal data of 147 million people – nearly half the U.S. population.

I had to file a claim and keep abreast of developments. It took several years for the payouts to start.

In 2019, then-Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring said that, despite knowing about a key vulnerability in its software, Equifax didn’t fully patch its system or replace software that monitored its network for suspicious activity.

I was among 4 million Virginians affected. Our names, birthdates, and Social Security numbers were imperiled, though Equifax still says there’s no proof the data “has been sold or used.”

We’ll see.

Would the settlement check let me go on a mini-shopping spree? Or could I barely afford a combo meal?

Drum roll: It was a measly $5.21.

With millions of plaintiffs, class-action lawsuits like this one usually mean individuals receive negligible amounts. Besides, the lawyers representing the class get a major cut.

A $425 million consumer restitution fund was established as part of the Equifax settlement, but the “fine print” said just $31 million was being used for reimbursements. If more than 248,000 people submitted claims – a tiny percentage of 147 million – payments would be lower than $125 to each person. Folks could opt for free credit monitoring instead.

I tried reaching Kenneth Canfield in Atlanta and Norman Siegel in Kansas City, two of the attorneys representing consumers as part of “class counsel.” I wanted to know, in part, how much they received. Neither responded to my messages by Tuesday afternoon.

A legal website noted plaintiffs’ counsel often “receives 25 to 33 percent of the amount of damages as their attorney fees.”

A spokeswoman for Equifax directed me to a company statement on the disbursements and the settlement administrator’s website.

You bet I’m cashing the check.

And cursing Equifax for its cavalier and cheap response to data security.

 

by Roger Chesley, Virginia Mercury


Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Warren County Democrats candidate interest open house Saturday. January 28th

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As Chair of the Warren County Democratic Committee, I am excited to announce our Candidate Interest Open House on Saturday, January 28, from 10-2 pm at the Warren County Community Center. This event is designed to be a service to members of the community and not a closed-door, partisan exercise. The open house is not a place for rehashing political debates but one where interested parties can come in good faith to learn if the public office is right for them. One might ask why the chair of a Democratic committee would share helpful information about how to seek office without requiring party pledges.

One part of the answer is that our community is no place for the kind of partisan divisions and theatrics that hound Washington. We need problem-solvers who care about their neighbors more than any political party. That means providing this publicly available information to as many citizens of Warren County as possible. Too many people in recent years have tried to bring divisive drama to our School Board and other local offices, but that is not how we move our community forward.

Warren County has a long history of voting for Republican candidates, but whether you are a multi-generational native like myself or a newer resident, most people would agree that there is room for improvement in how local government meets the needs of business owners and working families. We can change the nature of our local governing body to reflect a more diverse set of experiences. Whether you studied law at a prestigious college, got a job at the local grocery store right out of high school, or like many, are still trying to find your passion, you might the person to bring a perspective to our local or state political system that helps kickstart a new era of vitality for the residents of Warren County.

Our community will only thrive when our School Board and Board of Supervisors are made up of people who are passionate about making our schools top-notch and ensuring that our growth is environmentally sustainable. People whose kids attend our schools should know how they can be a part of shaping educational outcomes. Folks living with the limitations of affordable housing and job opportunities can and must be part of how decisions are made for managed growth.

Even attendees of the event who do not decide to run for office can now leave with more information about the duties of their elected officials. This knowledge is important for holding our officials accountable.

Paul Miller
Chair, WCDC

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2023 Reassessment Notice – sticker shock

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Last week I checked the mail and found my 2023 Reassessment Notice from Warren County. While not a bill, the assessment change was up nearly 33%.

I took a hard swallow, even though I had been forewarned, for I had been in the audience at the January 3rd Board of Supervisors meeting when it was discussed that these reassessments, expected to show 25-35% increases in many cases, would cause sticker shock.

The BOS more or less acknowledged the need to lower the tax rate toward a level that — offsetting the assessment increases — would be “revenue-neutral” for the county.

However, I would suggest a more drastic approach. Throw out the reassessments altogether. They are based on outdated information.

While it’s unclear exactly what data was used to calculate the increases, the fact is that the real estate market peaked in May or June 2022 and has been in a precipitous decline ever since.

The reported prices used in any assessment calculation come with a serious time lag. For example, the oft-referenced Case-Schiller index is only up-to-date through October closings, which reflects contracts that were signed in the July-to-September timeframe.

Whatever selling prices were used to develop the new assessments, they were based on a roaring market and constituted prices that almost no one selling a home could get today.

Today, 30-year fixed rates are 6.15%, up from 3.45% a year ago. This rapid increase has kneecapped the housing market.

And in December, existing home sales posted the 11th straight month of declining volume.

Pending home sales are down about 35% year over year.

Days on the market (selling time) is up nearly 25%. The percentage of asking price offered to sellers is shrinking, and affordability is getting worse except for all-cash buyers.

Consider a local couple that has saved up $84K to buy a house and can afford a $1500 monthly payment (not including property taxes and insurance).

With $84K in hand, at the 3.45% interest rate a year ago, they could have bought a $420K house with 20% down.

Today, at a 6.15% rate, they can only buy a $330K house with their nest egg.

That is $90K in purchasing power lost into thin air due to rising interest rates.

Since our market is roughly balanced in terms of buyers and sellers, it means that the seller of that $420K home just lost $90K in equity. Yet Warren County sees fit to increase her assessment by 30%.

In all likelihood, anybody who thinks they can sell their house today for what it may have sold for a year ago is in for an unpleasant surprise.

Most of us would be unable to sell our homes for the newly assessed value in any reasonable amount of time, even if we wanted to.

This is why the reassessments should be scrapped altogether, or at a minimum; the increases should be cut in half to reflect the recent downturn in the market. And on top of that, the BOS should indeed lower the tax rate to offset any increase in assessments, such that the real estate tax haul for the county is revenue-neutral.

Families in Warren are paying more for food. Car taxes are up based on increased assessments. Electricity prices will likely increase as well.

A real estate tax hike based on outdated data is too much for our families to stomach.

John Stanmeyer
Warren County

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Commentary: Reluctant, distrustful witnesses are key to solving homicides

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Kelvin Wright, the recently retired police chief of Chesapeake, remains bewildered by the slaying of Daevon Shaquille Miller outside a restaurant-nightclub several years ago. Scores of people witnessed a murder and stayed quiet – except for posting photos of the crime on the internet.

“Well over 100 people were there,” Wright told me this week, “and not one person came forward.” Several did, however, publish photos online of the mortally wounded Miller, he noted grimly.

Not human nature at its finest. Even though 30 officers were at the murder scene, people there were mum.

Chesapeake, the state’s second-biggest city, has a strong record of arresting homicide suspects and charging them. With 25 homicides in 2022, police arrested suspects in 68 percent of the cases, The Virginian-Pilot reported.

However, the 2011 shooting of Miller, just 18, still hasn’t been solved. Police said Miller was shot during an argument in the parking lot around 1:45 one morning. The high school graduate left behind a wife and an infant son, according to published reports and an online obituary.

The fatal shooting is an example of a disturbing, persistent trend across America:

Many police departments, often in large cities, aren’t “closing” – or clearing – a huge percentage of slayings. “Closing” means police have arrested someone or identified a suspect, now dead or possibly in prison.

Roughly half of the homicides in the country aren’t being closed, according to the most recent statistics. The percentage is way down from the 1960s, in the pre-Miranda era and at a time when departments weren’t scrutinized closely, so many likely fudged the stats.

The percentage of homicide cases cleared today, though, is still much lower than the 1990s.

News articles and criminology experts say the keys to arresting suspects are witnesses willing to talk and greater public trust in police. That willingness and trust were damaged, especially among Blacks and Latinos, following the videotaped killing of George Floyd and similar police-involved slayings.

Even before that, however, relations weren’t great because police were often seen as occupying forces in Black and Latino neighborhoods.

That has resulted in efforts to bring murderers to justice falling short.

Some witnesses fear retaliation from thugs if they help police and prosecutors. Having enough police personnel to investigate killings is a factor, too.

It’s become a circular, self-defeating prophecy: African-Americans are disproportionately represented among homicide victims and suspects in the United States. Yet, police are less likely to solve a murder when the victim is African-American or Latino, CBS News reported.

This brings to mind a quote by fictitious prosecutor Jack McCoy (embodied by actor Sam Waterston) on the hit TV series “Law and Order”: “A murder goes unpunished, it’s bad for business.”

Sadly, this is a very real truth carrying devastating consequences for relatives and friends of victims in Virginia and across the United States.

When police can’t lock up killers, criminals gain a sense of impunity. They believe they can continue to murder without threat of arrest. Victims’ families never gain closure or justice – and may opt for vigilantism.

The commonwealth, compared to other states that release statistics, is doing better than average in closing cases. A chart with a 2022 story by CBS News shows Virginia’s clearance rate at 66 percent between 2015 and 2020. Nearby Tennessee, West Virginia, Maryland and Delaware did worse. The national average was around 50 percent.

Different pockets in our state, however, face serious challenges. The Pilot noted there were 220 homicides in the seven main cities in Hampton Roads in 2022. About half were cleared through arrest or other means. Norfolk had 63 homicides, the most in Hampton Roads last year, but only 37 percent were cleared.

The situation is better in other Virginia localities.

Prince William County had 10 victims in 2021 and 19 homicide victims in 14 cases in 2022, First Sgt. Jonathan Perok told me by email. Only one case remained open from 2021 and two cases from 2022.

“The police department always seeks cooperation in cases, whether that’s directly from those involved in incidents, or from the public who may have information which could assist in solving cases,” he said. When residents are willing to share home surveillance footage and other technology, that helps too, Perok said.

Fairfax County, the state’s largest locality at 1.14 million people, had six active cases among 21 homicide victims in 2021, and just three active cases among 22 homicide victims last year, police there said.

It’s noteworthy that those localities have significantly fewer homicides than some in Hampton Roads. Their populations are wealthier, too. Studies note that communities with higher poverty are at higher risk of their residents becoming homicide victims.

Jeff Asher, a crime analyst, told The Atlantic last year that guns are a big factor in whether cases are closed. Today, almost 80% of murders are committed with guns, while it was 50% in the 1960s.

“Firearm murders are much harder to solve,” Asher told The Atlantic. “They take place from farther away. You often have fewer witnesses. There’s less physical evidence. … A higher share of gun violence can lead to a lower clearance rate.”

He also noted the “geography of murder” is important because certain communities – as I noted earlier – don’t trust the police. Those same communities tend to have fewer homicides solved.

A plea to police: Work harder re-establishing trust. Don’t give up.

A plea to Black and Latino people: Lack of cooperation prevents arrests. There’s no justice.

Letting killers off the hook helps the murderers – and nobody else.

 

by Roger Chesley, Virginia Mercury


Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: info@virginiamercury.com. Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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